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September 30, 2008

Taste of Tea

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I haven't been able to get this song out of my mind for the past few weeks. Every day in the field I find myself humming it.

And before anyone asks - No. The persimmon are not ready to start drying yet, but they are getting bigger which made me think of these photos from last year. Tomoe hung them out to dry, but the climate here is so humid that they just got moldy and we ended up throwing them into the field. The only thing we got from the persimmon tree last year were leaves to make tea.

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September 27, 2008

The Rice is Harvested!

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The rice is harvested. Well, almost all of the rice... We still have a section we gave up on because it is too filled with hie millet and other weeds. We expect to get almost twice what we will be able to eat ourselves this year, so if anyone is interested in buying some pretty much chem free genmai (brown rice), just email me. It is certainly not certified organic, as the fields around us use a remote control helicopter to spray their fields for bugs, weeds ,and other diseases. Also, the water coming into our field has run-off from all the fields above us, so anything they put in their filed will inevitably end up in ours to some degree. That said, we did not spray or add any chemical fertilizers to our fields, as is evident by the green undergrowth after we harvested our rice, compared to the barren brown mud after other people harvested theirs. It is also evident by the fact that we expect to harvest only about 40% of what our neighbors would harvest on the same size land using chemical aids.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, we were advised to learn how to use the "traditional" gas powered hand-harvester, but after an afternoon with a local old-lady, we realized we can have more fun and easily complete the harvest by hand. It took us four days, but we did it, and hung all of the rice up to dry on the racks you see in the photo. Our neighbors advice is now to borrow her machine to strip the rice grains from the straw, but I am very interested to use the traditional no-oil method. I guess it is up to Tomoe to decide...

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One of the highlights of the harvest was having a short break with some of the neighbors and their granddaughter. They were out harvesting their rice as well. They used a hand-pushed harvester, much like a lawn-mower, to do their fields and it appears that they did it only about twice as fast as us. It still took them two days (with four people) compared to our four days with two people. I am wondering if it is really that much more efficient. Sure, it is obviously faster. They can finish cutting a field in the time it takes us to do a half of ours, but efficiency-wise, they paid for a huge machine and also the gs to make it run, while we enjoyed to benefits of a good workout and fresh air as we worked.

As for the methodology of the harvest, basically, I took a small hand-held kama blade and cut each bunch one by one. Collected them into piles of 10 - 20, and left them laying on the ground for Tomoe to come by later and tie into bundles using old rice-straw, freshly cut hie millet, or sometimes a couple strands of the rice itself. Once they were tied into bundles, I hung them on the racks made with three-legged iron tripods supporting either bamboo or sugi poles. These drying racks were all borrowed from neighbors who had extra.

The photos are from our last day of harvesting, so don't worry, you can look forward to less rice-related photos from now on.

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Trout for Dinner

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It has been pouring off and on for the past few days. Not so good for drying rice or anything else, and not so good for the hiking which Tomoe and I had hoped to do for a couple days this week.

I'm a bit worried about leaving the house when there is a chance of rain though. A week ago or so there was a big rain and, as often happens the pipe channeling water into our pond got clogged with leaves and debris. Usually this does not cause any kind of problem, but now we are keeping trout. The trout need constantly moving water or they tend to die. I did not notice that the pipe was clogged until it was too late and I found a dinner's worth of fish floating on the top of the pond. Luckily, I we started with several hundred fish just in case they are eaten by birds or racoons. I was happy to find that some of them had gotten quite a bit biger than I expected. They all used to be slightly smaller than the little one in my hand, and now quite a few of them have reached the size of that big guy there. Almost ready to eat on purpose.

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September 25, 2008

What is a Hiking Guide For?

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So while we were in the hut at the top of Mt. Naeba, we overheard a "guide" telling an elderly client that she has to go down alone because she can't keep up with the rest of the group. It is one thing to expect a woman of her age who voluntarly climbed the mountain - and she was a sure-footed hiker- to go down alone, but the fact that he was being paid to ensure her safety (what other reason would a guide be needed when there are clearly marked trails and maps?)

The guide was leading a group of about fifteen people on a trip that required 12 hour hiking days. That is fine for me and Tomoe to hike alone, but finding two or three other people who will agree to that is hard enough. I have no idea how they found fifteen people in their golden years who knew about the distances and agreed to go - and I really have no idea how they felt they can ensure safety with only one guide! As was obvious from the conversation we overheard the first night of their three day hike, if someone can't handle the hard hike, or can't keep up, there is no contingency plan. The guide basically just yelled at her and told her to go down alone

We happened to be going down the same trail the next day, so we asked her to join us. Not wanting to cause us trouble, she insisted we go ahead and let her go down alone, but the trail from the top of Naeba is quite steep in places, and even younguns like Tomoe or I could conceivably slip, fall, and break a leg. Tomoe went ahead with our clients, and I stayed back within view of her - pretending that I was just a slow hiker - to make sure that if she did get injured, at least someone would know.

In the end, I probably fell more times on trail than she did, due to her extremely careful hiking style. I met her several times on the trail and was worried about freaking her out by following her, but she seemed to have forgotten who I was. every time I met her she asked where I was from and forgot that we had stayed in the hut and began hiking together at the same time earlier that morning.

Although it is probably lost in my rambling, the thing that I am pissed off about is that that "guide" would have sent her down alone (he did not know that we would be hiking the same trail). On the way up we passed a total of four people early on. If something had happened and she was laying injured on the trail, there would be little chance that anyone would find her. What the hell was that "guide" for?!?!

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September 23, 2008

Hike & Bike in Japan's Countryside

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A few more shots from our latest trip. The customers were not expexting such a "hard" hike and bike, but they enjoyed it none the less. I just wonder if they are sore now that it is all over...

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September 21, 2008

Looking for a scythe

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Anyone know where I can get a scythe in Japan? We desperately need one for keeping the weeds around our rice field under control, as well as clearing the weeds from our sunflower field. For some reason, they never caught on in Japan and I can't find any without ordering them from Europe (quite expensive).

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These photos are from the neighbor lady teaching us how to harvest rice and tie the bundles by hand. We had planned on having her show us for a few minutes, but ended up harvesting almost all of one of our paddies. Harvesting by hand is actually very fun and satisfying, and it didn't take that much longer than a neighbor using a machine. The only thing I feel bad about is that our next-door neighbor went to a lot of trouble to lend us a machine for harvesting and bundling the rice. It looks like we wont be using it.

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Today was pouring rain, but I can't wait to get out there again tomorrow and finish another field. (I only almost cut off one finger yesterday! - Our teacher told me to chew up some yomogi leaves and tie them over the wound... )

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September 20, 2008

Shinetsu Trail Hike

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Just a few shots from our hike with the Board of Education. I don't have time to write anthing special about them because we have started harvesting our rice (and sunflowers) and will e pretty much busy from dusk till dawn the next few days. This morning we had the 80 year old obachyan show us how to cut and bind it by hand, rather than using the machine that our neighbors have lent us.

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September 19, 2008

Leap of Joy

Tomoe In Sakae

Yesterday, we helped the local Board of Education to scout out a trail that the local school children will be hiking. The trail passes by the same rock that Tomoe jumped from almost one year ago to the day to express her joy when we visited Sakae Mura to check out our soon-to-be home. Last year I got the photo above. This year, to celebrate our almost one-year anniversary as a resident of Sakae Mura, Tomoe made the leap again. This time, though, the Board of Education members decided to celebrate with us.

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September 17, 2008

Favorite Customers (again)

Atop Mt. NaebaTired Hikers Atop Mt. Naeba

We just finished a great One Life Japan trip with three more of our favorite customers. I gotta stop saying that because somehow we only attract our favorite customers. I guess I can blame it on our web-site that we try to keep as personal as possible to attract people we will like. Somehow, only cool people end up joining us - except for that one... (just to keep any past customers who may be reading wondering if it was them ;-P)

Anyway, this time we had a thoroughly challenging trip through mountains and villages, along with a hike up Mt. Naeba to see the sunset that was unfortunately obscured by clouds. We did, however, get to catch the beginnings of the fall colors. I can't wait for our fall bike and hike trip. Which, by the way, is now open for registrations again following a cancellation. Although that is not why I am writing this post, I just thought I would mention it (what is the emoticon for a kinda timid "is it OK if I say this" face?)

This are just a few of the photos but there are more to come once I finish processing them.

Tomorrow we get out again to hike the Shinetsu Trail with the local Board of Education. I hope to have some nice photos of this when I get back, but I may not be able to concentrate enough as I worry about all the fields we have where crops are rotting and in urgent need of harvest.

View from Atop Mt. NaebaGabe Atop Mt. Naeba

Rappa

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Being a part of the village is a lot more work than I expected. I feel thankful that Tomoe and I are lucky enough to call that time "work" because a part of our work is to get to know this village as much as possible.

One of the responsibilities I signed on for is the shobodan (volunteer fire brigade). I had been interested in joining, and inquired about coming on as a "medic", as I really loved the Wilderness First Training courses I have taken and thought it might be an area I could be helpful. I heard nothing about it, however, until the owner of one of the inns we frequent (a former rappa-cho (trumpet brigade captain) asked me to join his group which was short of people. I gladly agreed, despite the fact that I have no trumpet skills, and I really didn't know what role a trumpeter plays in fighting fires or saving lives.

As it turns out, the trumpeter is supposed to make certain calls to alert the other fire fighters what to do - such as turn on the water, turn off the water, run into the fire, run away from the fire. In real life, though, this is not used and I am certain that only a handful of the fire-fighting fire-fighters know the calls anyway. When I asked, I was told that if there is a real fire, I should leave the trumpet at home and bring a bucket.

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While I am on-call for a specific area of our village - a call that will come over the village wide intercom system - the real role of a rappa now seems to be to help keep the community a community. In this sense, it appears rather successful (at least to a city-boy like me). In Tokyo, community service is outsourced to local agencies, officials, and non-profit organizations. Here, many of my neighbors are members of the fire brigade, and although it is not mandatory, it is a sort of "right of passage" for young people who choose to stay in the village. It helps people connect with other hamlets in the village while also providing a valuable service that the village can't afford to outsource.

There are also yearly competitions where neighboring village's fire brigades compete in such events as "pump", and "blowing the trumpet". In the "pump" event, the fastest pump team (there are several in the village) compete for time and accuracy to see how long it takes them to unroll a hose, hook it up to a gas-powered water pump, and hit a target that represents the fire. Speed and accuracy of aim are not the only issues, however. They are also watched by four or more judges who make sure that every pleat in their pants is in order, and that ever movement is exactly "correct" - right down to the angle of their elbow as they flip the switch on the pump.

For the rappa, only a part of our score depends on how well we play. Much of it depends on if we can march in time or salute at the right time. How our hand is shaped in the salute, and how sharply we can turn. Basically, how well we can conform and act like a mindless group. I say mindless, because no one has been able to tell me why we do this.

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This is where it starts getting into the dark and scary side. This is where I think the real reason for the shobodan lies. It seems to me that this is no more than a thinly veiled attempt to create a group of people who can "follow orders". While in this case we carry a trumpet, it is not inconceivable that some day the volunteer fire brigade will be ordered to carry a gun and stand at attention for reasons they are not fully aware of. Sure, there would probably be a lot of people that would resist, but having undergone such training, I would guess some resistance would be broken down. I for one never thought I would ever stand at attention to the Japanese flag (still a controversial image to many) and play the national anthem as I did a few weeks ago. (Oops! did I just admit that I did that? There goes my chances of ever being president of the US.) Now, I don't even think that that is a big deal, and if I think about it I don't think it is a big deal - probably even better than being forced to pledge allegiance to the flag when I was a kid who didn't understand what it means, but there is just something in me that can't stand about blind "allegiance". Then again, I was never able to understand the frat gig or why my high-school football team had some sort of "special" bond, and I never felt it. Maybe that is why I liked track better - I only had to compete against myself and my own times.

Before the regional competition, the trumpet brigade practiced two hours every week-night for a month. It gives me chills to think about the amount of time and emphasis spent on marching in time, compared to the amount of time and emphasis spent on actually putting out a fire. One would think that the most important thing in an emergency situation is to diffuse it - rather than spend time worrying if your hat is as straight as some handbook or "superior" said it should be.

Rappa Nakama

Still, I will stay a member of the rappa brigade while work allows. It does give me something to do with the other young people of the village, whom I rarely meet, and the rappa brigade is a source of pride for some villagers and gives me a sense of participation. It is amazing to me that I have stuck with it this long.

These photos are from a practice session at the neighboring village in Tsunan, Niigata. They do not have a trumpet brigade as well, so we were asked to come and provide the trumpet entertainment. It meant two weeks of nightly practice, as well as an entire day standing at attention and listening to a long line of important people give long, almost identical speeches one after another, each time blowing a trumpet salute to give them proof that they are important. I have no doubt that some of them are great men (and one woman), but to blow their praises blindly, without knowing why, just because my superior officer told me to...

Fire BrigadeFire Brigade

September 04, 2008

Compass Point

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We just finished what I see as a break-through weekend for One Life. We had a group of 16 young people from Tokyo here for two days to learn about and experience the village.

The group is called Compass Point and was organized by a couple of young people who found that when they got out of school and entered the work-force (mostly at "elite" companies) they were able to fill their desire for challenge and mental stimulation, but they were loosing the idealism, or maybe more the time for social activism, that that they once had. The group was organized to gather other young people like themselves together and keep the fire - the desire to *do* something - burning.

Several of the members had visited us over the winter (on different occasions) after seeing our presentation in Tokyo at a meeting for people interested in social ventures. When they started talking at one of their meetings, they found that several of them had the same idea - to bring Compass Point to Sakae Mura and to One Life Japan.

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They were only here for two days, but I think they had a big impact - if only because of their thoughtful questions at the speaker panel we organized with four of the "movers and shakers" of the village. We were overwhelmed by the number of young locals that turned out to the BBQ we held in the local shrine. Not only overwhelmed by the turnout, but also by the ease which everyone mingled and the flow of ideas and impressions about life in the countrysie and in the city..

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In addition to the BBQ of locally raised beef, pork, and vegetables, we had a menu of activities for their second day. I was pretty surprised that people were able to wake up at 5am ( I left the party at 1am and it was still in full swing! ) Somehow though, ten of them pulled themselves out of their futons at the local meeting hall which we had rented across the river from our house. We took a little walk to Mitsukuri, a nearby hamlet where our local dairy farmer works. Everyone (even two locals who had never visited the dairy farm) seemed to enjoy milking the cows by hand, tasting the fresh milk that was the fruit of their labor, and hearing about the issues facing rural villages and farmers in Japan these days. We received several comments about the eye-opening point made by the milk farmer the previous night at the BBQ - "Think about it, a bottle of water costs 150 yen, but the same amount of rice costs 20 yen." Of course, this struck home even more for those who got a real idea of the effort put into making rice by spending the rest of the morning pulling weeds in our neighbor's rice paddy.

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Some of those who were not farming, spent the morning walking with one of the elders of village and listening to his stories about life then and now. The rest pissed and moaned as they rode up 800m to the man-made Lake Nonomi used to catch all that snow-melt and irrigate rice fields in the summer. They didn't complain as much on the 45 minute downhill ride with amazing views, however.

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The reason I say this is a break-through moment for us, is that this is what we really want to do. While I love bike touring, and love showing people around this area, there is a different mindset between tourists who are here to have fun, and people who are here to learn or help the locals. While this time the Compass Point crew didn't have much time to "help" much in terms of hard labor, the fact that they showed interest and a willingness to help really had a big impact on the people of the village. What's more, we are now talking with them about future opportunities to have joint programs with them, focusing on high-school kids or a younger audience.

In a somewhat related story, last night Tomoe and I were speakers at a session put on by a University professor who lives here for a group of students from Hokkaido. We were asked to talk about the state of "Green Tourism", and our experiences as a private business trying to run such programs. First, Green Tourism does not necessarily mean "eco" in Japan. It usually refers to tourism where customers do some kind of farming or making local crafts or food. In my mind though, green should also mean green - as in "eco". This is an issue that we have been struggling with, and another reason why I am so happy after this weekends visit by Japanese young people. As we try to re-green ourselves now that we are pretty much settled, we want to cut the carbon footprint of our business as well - pretty hard when customers are flying here from all over the world...

Oh CRAP! I just looked at the clock" I have to go harvest some sunflowers or fix something on the house - I will have to write more about green tourism and One Life Japan next time...

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